They didn't get to their respective conference title games by mistake. The four teams that'll dominate our living rooms this Sunday aren't flukes. These are the four-best teams in football, so, if you wanna know why your favorite team isn't among this distinguished quartet, you need only examine what the Patriots, Steelers, Falcons and Eagles have in common to get your answer.
Let's begin with healthy salary caps. These teams didn't get to where they are by tricking the cap. These are four teams that are sound cap managers, especially in the case of the Patriots and Eagles in recent years. Atlanta is tight against the cap for 2005, which is what happens when your quarterback is Michael Vick, but there are no Titans or Colts in this bunch; no fish hanging out of these guys' buns.
In terms of style of play, three of Sunday's four teams are carbon copies of each other. The Patriots, Steelers and Falcons are "run the ball/stop the run" teams, representing the league's number one, two and seven rushing games, and number one, six and eight run-defenses. The Eagles are one of those rare "West Coast" offenses that plays good defense (10th overall). In the case of the Steelers and the Falcons, they have reached their respective conference title games with the league's 28th and 30th-ranked passing games.
Points allowed may be the most telling stat of all. Pittsburgh is number one and New England and Philadelphia are tied for second. Atlanta is a not-too-shabby 14th, which fell mostly as the result of a ridiculous blow-out loss in Kansas City early in the season.
Another common denominator of success among the four teams is sacks. Sunday's four teams are all in the top eight of the league in sacks. They are all in the plus category in turnover differential, too.
"Great special teams for all four," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio offered as a common denominator among Sunday's four headliners.
So what is the profile of a conference championship game team we are to deduce from that which is common to this year's contestants? Well, it would seem that to make it to the conference championship, you need to:
• Discipline your spending and manage your salary cap responsibly; no "this is the year" attitude.
• Emphasize defense. Even if you're going to throw the ball on offense, you better have a defense that stops the run, sacks the quarterback, creates turnovers and limits scoring.
• Be efficient on offense. It would be best if you have a strong running game, but at least one team got to within a win of the Super Bowl on the strength of its passing game. Whatever you do, do it well.
• Play great special teams. Del Rio made that point.
"They've earned where they are and we're working toward getting there. It really doesn't matter how close (we are). It's a matter of getting there," Del Rio said of his own team.
So where are the Jags relative to Sunday's conference title game teams? Do the Jaguars fit the profile of a final-four club?
In most ways, they fit the bill. The Jaguars have a great-looking cap. The Jags' cap is being managed beautifully and it offers enough room in 2005 to allow the final pieces of the puzzle to be put into place.
Defensively, the Jaguars are in the process of putting together a Patriots-like, Steelers-like unit. The Jags have the stop-the-run guys necessary and the Jags were an impressive seventh in the league in points allowed. The next step on defense is to find a consistent pass-rush that will increase sacks and stimulate turnovers.
It is on offense where the Jaguars have the most to do. They would seem to have the ingredients for a strong running game, but the Jags finished 16th in the league and, even worse, they don't seem to get the boost from Fred Taylor's big days as the Patriots get from Corey Dillon's, the Steelers get from Jerome Bettis' and Duce Staley's, or the Falcons get from Vick's, Warrick Dunn's or T.J. Duckett's.
In 2004, the Jaguars offense was anything but efficient. This Sunday's final four are all in the top 13 of the league in points scored, while the Jaguars rank 29th. Maybe worst of all, the Jaguars didn't seem to hang their hat on pass or run in '04. In '03, they had the league's eighth-ranked running game, but that fell off dramatically this season while, at the same time, the Jaguars passing game slumped to 19th.
What is this, a team that runs the ball or throws the ball? That's a question that has to be definitively answered by the new offensive coordinator. This team lacks an offensive identity, which all four of Sunday's teams clearly have.
Can it be done? Can the Jaguars get over the hump in this offseason? Can they better arrange and utilize what they already have, and can they find the pieces they still need before next season begins?
"I wouldn't want to make a public proclamation but, yes, I do believe another offseason of strengthening the roster, of strengthening the staff," Del Rio said, opting not to finish the statement but leaving no doubt where he stands on the matter. "I will be better as a head coach, we will be better as a staff and we will have played another year together in this system. We have building blocks in place here. We've laid the groundwork; we've laid the foundation."
They may have been saying the same thing in Pittsburgh and in Atlanta a year ago, where they were coming off 6-10 and 5-11 seasons. What changed for those two teams? Well, the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger and the Falcons got Vick back after a season lost to injury.
Here's another common denominator of success: One player can make the difference. The emergence of Tom Brady in 2001 has made that difference in New England, and the acquisition of Terrell Owens made the difference for most of this season in Philadelphia.
The Jaguars would like to think they, too, are just a player away.